Build Stuff: A Beginner's Guide to Resilience

I never was the type of guy to build stuff. It didn't fit into the very stuffed envelope of my many other interests. Then I became a homeowner, father, and husband. Quickly, the idea of building and fixing things on my own was alluring, for countless reasons. Honestly, it was the chest-pounding sense of pride that came with doing it myself, that initiated my intrigue. So I decided to, as I proudly labeled it, just “build stuff.” Soon after, I found a much more valuable lesson hidden in my experimental endeavors, not only valuable to me as a parent/homeowner, but as a Prevention Coordinator at United Way of Addison County.

Okay, decision made, “build stuff.” Below all of the grunting and chest-pounding was the hard truth that I was embarking on uncharted territory. In all of my uncertainty, however, was the confidence of knowing I could learn as I go (thank you, internet!). I learned a lot. Things like, “having the right tool for the job,” and “measure twice, cut once”. While all of these tips were helpful to the process of building or fixing physical “stuff”, they weren't solely responsible for accomplishing my goals. Projects that would often feel like inevitable failures always succeeded. But how? I credit the intangibles. Things like resilience, determination, confidence, and humility. The internal building blocks that I’ve gathered over the years, all of which I consider key components to my successes in building.

Being a new dad brings a whole new perspective to prevention. I have kids! Kids who will grow into a world full of important decisions when it comes to drugs and alcohol. Also, in being a new Prevention Coordinator at UWAC, I’ve started to see life through prevention colored glasses, often trying to draw from my personal experiences and relate them to prevention. Then it dawned on me: the same qualities that helped me jump into building stuff, are those I want not only for my own children but for all children! Things that would help grow and maintain strong mental health, and ultimately strong decision making. They’re building blocks for both parents and children that can increase protective factors against drugs and alcohol use. One of which felt more pertinent to prevention than the others: resilience. 

It’s an important quality to have whether building “stuff” or building a concrete support system for your child. It's important to teach our kids that when things don’t (and likely won’t) go as planned, we must adjust and adapt accordingly to complete our goals. Having resilience is to hold a level of calmness that is vital to developing mechanisms against potential overwhelming life experiences. It protects us against mental health issues which in turn, protects us against risky behaviors, like drinking, smoking, and doing drugs. Simply asking our children what the word resilience means to them can be helpful, but I wanted to further understand where it comes from and how to strengthen it. Is resilience something we are born with, or is it developed over time? Actually, it’s both.

Having resilience is to hold a level of calmness that is vital to developing mechanisms against potential overwhelming life experiences."

I’m well aware of my 2-year-old daughter's instinct to take risks. She's exploring and discovering, learning to play, while maneuvering her way around every new corner. This natural ability is something most of us are born with called inherent resilience. We’re born with the ability to, in essence, grow. This type of resilience is naturally grown internally, however, there are two others that are learned behaviors, either on the spot or over time.

The first is called adaptive resilience. When my daughter grows old enough to start dating, she will more than likely get heartbroken at a relationship's end, possibly feeling a little self-conscious or not worth it. Over time, several sad songs, and a few pints of Ben & Jerry’s she’ll find strength to unveil the confidence to find someone new. All the while, she’ll be using adaptive resilience. This ability to respond to changing circumstances is important to strong mental health. As parents, it’s our job to talk our kids through these difficult times. Feeling vulnerable and unsure can lead to risky behaviors, and result in using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. We can reassure them of the light at the end of the tunnel that's sometimes so difficult to see. Reminding them that life isn't a smooth ride, and being able to quickly adjust and adapt is important to help healthy behaviors stay in the forefront.          

Every time we use adaptive resilience, we’re adding to a bank of experiences that we can reflect on throughout life. This is what is known as learned resilience. Running through the gauntlet of life, we are faced with many opportunities to overcome. It’s the compilation of those experiences that we draw from when faced with stressful moments later on.  A mental vault of sorts, used to deal with stressful situations. Ever stepped back from a hard situation not knowing how you made it through? It’s in these moments of surprising ourselves with strengths we didn’t realize we had, that we are using our learned resilience. Try having a conversation with your children about their previous hardships. Explain that remembering past experiences can help when similar ones arise. 

So now that we better understand what resilience is, what are some ways to help build it? Recognizing opportunities for self-discovery when they occur is a great place to start. Understanding that from hardship, comes a greater sense of strength that will increase self-worth, and appreciation. Building resilience means keeping a broad perspective, remembering situations are only temporary. Another skill to integrate is the acceptance of change. Ask your child how they feel when situations are out of their control. Explain that accepting circumstances that cannot be changed allows for a more important focus on the ones that can. When it comes to altering situations, being assertive is vital to maintaining strong mental health and good decision making. It's important to recognize that being decisive and assertive is the correct approach in certain situations. Teach your children to understand when it’s important to say no, and leave uncomfortable situations. Be firm in your beliefs, as that sets a good example to be firm in theirs. So when difficult questions arise, our youth can hold down the fort and stay true to what they know is the right decision. 

I hope to build resilience in our community's youth, my children included. If nothing else, 2020 is a constant reminder of how important resilience is within Addison County. By taking steps to better overcome obstacles, and bounce back, we are promoting a positive and safe community. As a prevention coordinator, it’s obviously my job to educate both parents and children about the risks of substance use, but I think of it as much more than that. It’s about building strong relationships by having conversations about topics pertaining to substance use among our youth.  It’s about reinforcing protective factors like resilience that can help reduce risky behaviors. It’s about stepping back and seeing the bigger picture, and the positivity that's possible through conversations (even the hard ones). I’m excited to share knowledge I gain through my job here at United Way Addison County, and hope to spread positivity throughout our community, so my kids and their peers can grow up in the safest environment we can provide them. By better understanding and implementing resilience into our communities youth we will make “building stuff” a deeper and more valuable learning experience.

Tim O'Toole, Prevention Coordinator
tim@unitedwayaddisoncounty.org